Patriots 23, Ravens 20 ... Worst. Loss. Ever.

The title pretty much sums it up. Yesterday was the epitome of misery. The Ravens’ three-point loss to New England was by far the worst loss I have ever suffered as a fan. It hurt then and it hurts now. The sickening feeling I had swelling up in my stomach after Billy Cundiff’s missed 32-yard field goal has yet to subside. I refuse to watch ESPN or the NFL Network. I probably won’t watch anything football-related until the Super Bowl, and even that’s up in the air. In the 273-game existence of the Ravens, game 273 was the worst.

I watched the game yesterday over a friend’s house. There was about 15 people there — all Ravens fans. Three were Giants fans, but were rooting for the Ravens and hoping for a Super Bowl XXXV rematch. It was a celebration that never was. I was on the edge of my seat, flanked by Ravens supporters, drinking a Natty Boh and watching the game on a 55-inch projection that was cast upon the wall. Joe Flacco — the most scrutinized player in the week leading up to the AFC Championship — had outplayed Tom Brady. Flacco and his fumanchu were marching the Ravens’ offense down the field. On third down, Lee Evans didn’t make the catch. On fourth down, Billy Cundiff didn’t make the kick. And it was over.

I sat there, slumping over, head hung low, clinging to my Natty Boh that had been drenched with condensation. I just looked at that can, saw the water sliding down the sides like tears, as if it were symbolizing Baltimore’s agony. I could do nothing but sit there in disbelief, thinking ‘how could this happen’. The defense held the Patriots’ vaunted offense to 23 points. The offense gained more yards than New England. Flacco played better than Brady. Yet, a simple dropped pass and a missed field goal left me more distraught than ever before after a loss.

Some people have brought up the loss in 2009 to the Steelers in the AFC Championship to me as being the worst. Wrong. The Ravens overachieved so much that year. I remember thinking before that season, “if we win eight games, I’ll be happy”. The Ravens won 11 games, beat Miami and Tennesse in the playoffs on the road, and were trailing Pittsburgh by just two points before Flacco was picked off. That was a Cinderella season that fell short. 2011 was supposed to be our year. The Ravens swept the Steelers and the entire AFC North. They won all their home games and the division. They earned a No. 2 seed and a first-round bye. They ousted Houston in the Divisional round. Did almost everything they had to do to beat New England. They should have beaten New England. They should be in the Super Bowl facing the Giants. They aren’t and it’s a terrible feeling.

I couldn’t have cared less about the outcome of the NFC Championship. That wasn’t fun. I wanted to be cheering with my Giants friends just like they cheered for the Ravens. I wanted to be happy when the Giants won because of the rematch it would have set up and the fact that mine and my best friend’s favorite team would be competing against each other in the Super Bowl. In the midst of their elation, I sat there sullen and downtrodden reflecting on what happened three hours earlier. It was the lowest I have ever felt after a loss.

There are, however, a few things I will always remember about the game yesterday, in no particular order …

1. The “illegal contact” call in first quarter. As Ravens fans we know what it’s like to be on the wrong side of the referee’s good side. (See 2005 vs. Lions, or any game vs. Pittsburgh). Bernard Pollard, the ‘Patriot killer’ himself, intercepted a Tom Brady pass but had it negated when the ref threw a garbage flag for illegal contact on Lardarius Webb. Did contact occur after five yards? Yes. Was it on purpose? No. When Webb and Wes Welker bumped into each other, it was clearly incidental. I hate complaining about the refs, but this had to be brought up. The penalty allowed the Patriots another possession and gave them the 3-0 lead. You know the final score, so go ahead and do the math.

2. Lee Evans’s drop in the end zone. That was just terrible. If he was going to catch any pass in his entire career, it had needed to be that one. Flacco put the pass right on the money and Evans blew it. That drop — the most costly drop in Baltimore Ravens history — got me thinking about other big drops. Mark Clayton on fourth down against the Patriots in 2009, Derrick Mason’s drop against the Steelers in the same season, T.J. Houshmanzadeh’s drop on fourth down against Pittsburgh in the Divisional round last year all come to mind. What people forget about Flacco is that he makes the necessary throws needed to win, he just hasn’t been blessed with good enough talent at the wide receiver position.

3. Billy Cundiff’s missed field goal. I remember when the Ravens signed Cundiff in 2009 after Steven Hauschka missed the game-winning field goal against Minnesota in 2009 and I was skeptical. Cundiff then went on to hit the game-winner, in overtime, against Pittsburgh that year. He had one of the greatest kicking seasons ever last year and became sporadic this year, which explains his appearance on nine different rosters in nine seasons. Brady gets a lot of credit, and rightfully so, but his three Super Bowl rings were won with Adam Vinatieri’s foot. It’s amazing what a clutch kicker can do when called upon. I have a hunch he won’t return next season and the Ravens will be in the market for kicker.

4. Cam Cameron’s last game. Don’t quote me on that, but it’s likely. There’s no reason the Ravens shouldn’t have a top-ten offense with their talent. Yet, each year the Ravens have an average offense that is at times tough to watch. Cameron’s fair-at-best relationship with Flacco doesn’t help matters and is part of the reason the Ravens let Jim Zorn go as their QB coach after last year so Cameron and Flacco could build a better relationship. Should the Ravens let go of Cameron, I vote Hue Jackson as his successor. Jackson was Flacco’s QB coach in 2008 and 2009 but left in 2010 to become the Raiders’ offensive coordinator and then their head coach this past year. Flacco really liked Jackson when he was in Baltimore, so this could work. If Jackson were hired, I wouldn’t let him in on any trade negotiations since he gave up two first-rounders for Carson Palmer.

To make matters worse (somehow), the Ravens have 13 unrestricted free agents (UFA) meaning that if these players aren’t signed by the Ravens by March 13 at 4 p.m., they can sign with another team. Jarrett Johnson, Brendan Ayanbadejo, Ben Grubbs, Matt Birk, Andre Gurode, Tom Zbikowski, Jameel McClain and Ray Rice headline this list. Plus, John Harbaugh needs a new contract or we’ll be without a head coach next year. The silver lining here is that Ray Lewis IS coming back next year. That’s always a plus.

This week, much like yesterday and today, will be rough. We’ll keep looking back on what could have been and what should have been. We’ll watch the Super Bowl with the same enthusiasm as a podiatrist on a Monday morning with Fred Flintstone as his 8 a.m. It will be no fun watching the Patriots run out of what should have been Baltimore’s tunnel. These last two weeks of the season are going to be brutal. If I had some encouraging words here, I’d use them. A good season isn’t good enough. Two playoff wins isn’t good enough. Anything short of a Super Bowl would be classified as a failure. 2011 was a failure. It’s a harsh reality. Until free agency kicks off and the always-entertaining off-season starts, I recommend a heavy dose of Netflix and college basketball to keep your mind off things.

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